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A Third Intifada In Palestine?

By Juan Cole

01 March, 2010

Abraham has been an important figure for theologians, philosophers, chroniclers and religious poets and lyricists among Jews, Christians and Muslims. All three monotheistic religions honor him and claim him as a patriarch or in Islam's case as a prophet of the one God. All tell the story of his willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Jews and Arabs see him as an ancestor, Jews claiming descent through his implausibly aged first wife Sarah and Arabs through his second wife (held in some Jewish and Muslim traditions to have been a Pharaonic princess), Hagar. They hold him to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil in the Palestinian West Bank, which the Israelis call "Hebron," where Muslims erected the Mosque of the Abraham, which is split, with part of it used by Jews and the other part by Muslims.

Abraham is frequently cited as a figure who should unite Jews, Christians and Muslims, since all view him as the first monotheist and a founder figure for their traditions. But last week the Israeli government designated the Cave of the Patriarchs an Israeli heritage site. Since it is on the Palestinian West Bank, it cannot be an Israeli heritage site, though it certainly is a Jewish one.

Palestinians are afraid that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's action is a prelude to an Israeli claim on the annexation of al-Khalil to Israel. The town of 150,000 is completely made up of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, though 400 Israeli settlers, some of them armed and all under the protection of the Israeli military, reside there. There have been constant frictions between the small Israeli colony and the Palestinian townspeople.

The move provoked protests in al-Khalil, with youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and threatening a third popular uprising or Intifada. As a result of this atmosphere of tension, the Israeli military locked down the Palestinian West Bank on Sunday as Israeli colonists there celebrated the festival of Purim.

(Purim, based on the Book of Esther, commemorates the deliverance of the Jews of the Achaemenid Empire in ancient Iran and Iraq from a hostile minister to the Persian king, Khsayarsha II, called by the Greeks Artaxerxes II and in the Bible Ahasuerus [r. circa 405 to 358 BC]. He was married to a Jewish woman, Esther, though he was unaware of her religion, and his life had been saved by her cousin, Mordecai. His gratitude causes him to turn against his minister, Haman, who wanted to kill all the Jews, and to have him hanged. The shah then gave permission to the Jews to defend themselves from attacks by Haman's supporters, which they apparently did with rather excessive zeal, polishing off 75,000 Iranians. Ancient numbers are not reliable and one historian suggested we always subtract at least one zero. You have a sinking feeling that some hawkish Israelis see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a contemporary Haman.)

But Purim in al-Khalil has other connotations, since it was the day on which Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on innocent worshipers at the Mosque of Abraham, shooting 179 in cold blood, and killing 29 of those. This site gives you an idea of how Palestinians remember the incident. Israeli apologists often refer to Goldstein as deranged, by people who met him before his attack deny this charge. He is more likely to have simply been the Israeli equivalent of a suicide bomber, i.e. acting out of ideological conviction.

Anyway, the coincidence of the anniversary of the Goldstein massacre with the designation of the tomb complex an Israeli heritage site was enough to inspire fear, outrage and anger in the Palestinian residents of the city. The cabinet of the Palestine Authority is meeting in al-Kahlil/ Hebron on Monday, just to reaffirm its sovereignty or at least future sovereignty over the town.

On Sunday, the tensions in al-Khalil/ Hebron spilled over onto Jerusalem, where Muslims and Jews uneasily share the area around the Wailing Wall and the Haram Sharif above it. Muslims venerate the Aqsa Mosque on what Israelis maintain is the site of the ancient Temple as sacred soil, associating it with a miracle of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Israeli extremists wish to destroy the mosque so that the Temple can be rebuilt, and in 1969 a fanatic set fire to it. Muhammad Bin Laden, the Saudi developer and father of Usamah, got the contract to repair it. Palestinians gathered in the mosque, having apparently heard rumors (which circulate frequently) that it would be attacked by militant Israelis. They pelted visitors to the site with stones. Some 17 persons were wounded in the clashes, including two Israeli policemen. The Israeli security forces went into the mosque and arrested the protesters.

Israeli soldiers in the Aqsa Mosque is a provocation, since it is the third holiest site in the Muslim world. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for international protections for Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, several of which they said were threatened by unilateral Israeli measures. A recent controversy, which is probably related to Sunday's violence, has centered on a bizarre Israeli decision to build a 'Museum of Tolerance' on top of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. For a fact sheet On the Mamilla Cemetery, see this site.

The events should alarm Americans. The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and therefore of the Aqsa Mosque complex, was one of the grievances that drove Bin Laden to declare war on the United States, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's provocative demarche on the mosque complex in 2000 caused Bin Laden to try to move up the date of the planned attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., as 'punishment' for Sharon's implicit threat.

One obstacle to American understanding of the events of the past week is a lack of understanding of the position of Abraham and of Jerusalem in Muslim scripture and in Muslim religious and folk practice. The Qur'an sees Abraham as an early monotheist who came into conflict with his own father on behalf of the one God. Abraham starts being mentioned in the early, Meccan, chapters of the Qur'an (contrary to some Orientalist assertions). Muslim belief even holds that Abraham resided in Mecca and built the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine around which Muslims circumambulate during the pilgrimage. When Muslims first conquered Palestine in the seventh century, sources say that Jews showed them the Cave of the Patriarchs, and that Jews and Muslims both worshiped there and made pilgrimage to it. (Jews in Palestine are said to have welcomed the Muslim conquest, preferring them to the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox empire).

The Jews of the Roman province of Palestine were not for the most part expelled in the second century CE, as popular history sometimes has it, but went on farming there and gradually converted to Christianity. The majority then later gradually converted to Islam and became what we now call the Palestinians. Most Palestinian and Jewish men share the same distinctive haplotypes or genetic patterns in their Y chromosomes, showing common descent. If promises were made to Abraham's putative descendants, then they share in the promise. The promise could not possibly be to adherents of Judaism, since that religion did not exist until many centuries later.

The authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam notes that al-Khalil/ Hebron is at a high elevation and traditionally lacked water save for some nearby springs, saying: "Since during the later Middle Ages and the Ottoman period, large numbers of pilgrims came to the city [Hebron] and passed through it on the Hajj route to Mecca, the need for greater reserves of water necessitated the construction of two large reservoirs in the Hebron valley."

That is, historians are aware that the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been sacred to Muslims for 1400 years and they have been going on pilgrimage to it for much of that period, combining visits to Jerusalem and Hebron with their pilgrimage to Mecca. (If you were living in Turkey, Northern Iran or coastal Syria, Jerusalem and Hebron are on the way to Mecca by a popular route.)

It is worth noting that the figure of Abraham as described in the Bible is in any case not historical. The Bible has him come to Palestine from Ur in southern Iraq (in what is now Dhi Qar province) with camels. But the biblical chronology suggests that this happened in the 1900s BC, whereas camels were not domesticated until around 1000 BC. Abraham is said to have been the forebear of the twelve tribes of Israel, including that of Benjamin or Bin Yamin. But the Banu Yamin are mentioned in clay tablets in the area dated to 2000 BC, so they precede Abraham's alleged advent. The kings he is said to have met don't correspond to any known historical figures. He is said to have bought the Caves which allegedly became his tomb from a Hittite, but the Hittites did not then exist and they didn't come to Palestine until the 1400s BC. He is said to have been a monotheist, but there is no evidence in the archeology of anything but polytheists in Palestine for many centuries after he supposedly lived.

Moreover, if Abraham were from south Iraq he would have likely been ethnically Sumerian, whereas the genetic signature of a majority of Jewish men most resembles that of Palestinians and Lebanese, not of southern Iraqis. For the same reason, he is not the direct male ancestor of the Hijazi Arabs.

Abraham is no more historical than Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim, other ancient Middle Eastern mythical figures. The jumbled stories about him were written down in the Babylonian exile, when scribes made an attempt to establish a historical timeline into which he could be asserted. Ur was a classy place to be from, as Shlomo Sands points out, and so the Babylonian Jewish authors of the written Bible endowed themselves with a distinquished Iraqi parentage.

It is modern nationalism that lies behind the current tensions over Abraham's tomb and the Haram Sharif. Jews and Muslims shared pilgrimage sites all through history, most often amicably. Israeli, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms are reconfiguring sacred space as sites of national authenticity and as exclusive.

The Palestine Authority should declare itself a state and offer citizenship to the 400 or so Jews in al-Khalil/ Hebron. And there are lots of Palestinian heritage sites it could then designate inside Israel. And ideally the two would share them, and allow free circulation and pilgrimage, including for international religious tourism, which would be good for the economy. I predict that eventually all these things will come to pass. It may however be decades.

In the meantime, the danger to the Aqsa Mosque complex is a danger to world and American security.